Britten: Peter Grimes

Grange Park Opera

The Grange, 22th June 2014 3.5 stars

GrimesPeter Grimes is not the first Britten opera to have been scheduled by Grange Park—that honour goes to The Turn of the Screw, which made its appearance in 2002. But Peter Grimes is the first grand opera by Britten, with full orchestra and chorus, to have filled Grange Park's comparatively small theatrical space (around 550 seats) with its astonishingly dynamic sound world, from fullscale choral and orchestral storm music to the haunting, echoing choral cries of "Grimes! Peter Grimes!" as the Act 3 foghorn blasts away. And the first thing to say of this production of Peter Grimes, by Jeremy Sams, is that it was a serious, thought-through attempt to say something about the work, and to do it justice. The approach adopted was ultra-naturalistic: wooden doors and windows flapped and creaked in the breeze, the (brilliantly projected) waters of the North Sea ebbed and flowed to the foundations of the houses in the fishing village, and the inhabitants of the Borough were costumed exactly as they might have been in George Crabbe's time. In terms of period look, and atmosphere, this Peter Grimes (designed by Francis O'Connor) could not be faulted.

That gets us going visually: and then Britten's music takes us straight into the improvised pomposity of the court proceedings, the attempt by the Borough to bring the outsider in their midst into line, and first impressions were highly favourable. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra played accurately and alertly for conductor Stephen Barlow, and as the chirpy woodwind and brass that accompanies Swallow (the excellent Clive Bayley, in noble and sonorous voice) contrasted with the soft sheen of the strings playing underneath Grimes (Carl Tanner, of whom more below), I formed the impression that this was going to be a Peter Grimes that I would really enjoy. And, overall, I did enjoy the evening, although I have reservations about some aspects of the production and, crucially, about the performance that lies at the heart of it, that of Peter Grimes himself.

But let us consider the (many) merits of the production and performances first. The choral and orchestral ensemble work was excellent, all the protagonists moving naturally and effectively the full width and depth of the stage, and coming together in rousing fashion for the 'big' numbers: ‘Now the flood tide' was cumulative in its impact, as it should be, the cross-rhythms of 'Old Joe has gone fishing' were emphatically brought out, the final, accusatory cries of 'Grimes' were as blood-curdling as they should be. Barlow captured the visceral excitement of the score in its key moments, and in the resonant acoustic of the Grange, the sounds made were thrilling.

Auntie and her two ‘nieces' were well sung and nicely characterized: Anne-Marie Owens had the requisite heft and stage presence as Auntie, with Soraya Mafi and Rosie Bell attractive, light-voiced adornments in the establishment she runs. Rebecca de Pont Davis looked as spooky and insidious as all Mrs Sedleys are supposed to, perhaps lacking the last ounce of venom in her lower register. Andrew Rees made the most of Boles, and went Methody without overdoing it, and Stephen Gadd was a powerful, nicely-judged Balstrode, always a delight to listen to.

Georgia Jarman was making her Grange Park debut and her role debut as Ellen Orford. She has all the notes, and the sense of melodic line, and is an attractive presence onstage, but I found her Ellen to be under-characterised both vocally and dramatically (particularly with memories still strong of Giselle Allen's anguished portrayal of the role on the beach at Aldeburgh last summer). Jarman has a lovely voice and held her line beautifully in the 'From the gutter' quartet: she has it in her to develop into the role of Ellen, but this performance was not quite the finished article.

Carl Tanner has shown us before at the Grange (as Herman in The Queen of Spades) what a big and sometimes thrilling voice he has, and in the title role here he sang incisively, projecting his vocal line with ease to all parts of the house. But I found his performance curiously unmoving: he moved among and between the inhabitants of the Borough without ever seeming really to interact with them, and I never quite caught any sense of the Grimes/Ellen relationship. This created a bit of a void at the heart of the work—despite the best efforts of a well-rehearsed and often highly effective ensemble, the spark of a great Peter Grimes failed to ignite. I wondered at times if the lack of surtitles—a bad miscalculation on the part of Grange Park, because the libretto was often indistinct and some of the crucial sung exchanges went for nothing—was a factor here.

Sams took the decision to stage the great four sea interludes: so movement and mime from the imagined childhoods of Peter and Ellen, and the community into which they were born, were enacted alongside the abstract portrayals of much greater elements in Britten's unforgettable music. I did not object to the idea, but do not think that it added much, if anything, to the work as a whole. Similarly, right at the end, as Balstrode instructs Peter in that chilling Sprechgesang to take his boat right out to sea and sink it, the lifeless body of the last apprentice is lifted into the boat and disappears with Peter to their watery grave: this was an effective and affecting piece of music theatre.

So my overall judgement was that the whole failed somehow to prove much more than the sum of the many parts of this Peter Grimes that were admirable in themselves. Some wonderful singing and playing, and plenty of effective moments along the way, but not a vintage Peter Grimes. As always, however, I came away marveling anew at the operatic masterpiece that Britten created over half a century ago.

By Michael Reynolds

Photos: Grange Park Opera